Some kids’ issues are nearly always spoken about in a whisper; masturbation is one of them. It’s a normal and common activity of sexual exploration for young teens, but it’s a subject that few parents—or kids—bring up.
Unless it goes public.
Do you know how you would respond if your child told you one of their classmates was suggesting masturbation as a social activity? Instead of being caught off guard, take some time to think about the subject that no one talks about. The information below can get you started:
• Physical exploration.
It’s totally normal for children to explore their bodies. Preschoolers want to know why Jared has a “pee-pee” and Sarah doesn’t; Jared likes to see what kind of tricks he can do while urinating; and often you’ll find both kids touching themselves “there.” At this young age, we tend to take the comments and behaviors more in stride. As they get older, the topic is reduced to a whisper. In fact, physical exploration is normal at any age. Bodies change, sensations emerge, and children are curious about what’s going on. Until they are told, children have no idea that self-touching is anything to whisper about.
• A moral issue.
Different religions, ethnic groups or social groups may have different beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of autoerotic behavior. For some, this behavior is unequivocally wrong and viewed as a sin against God. For others, it’s simply a physical act that has no judgment attached to it at all. Many opinions fall somewhere between those two.
Whatever your beliefs, as parents you have the right to raise your child within the code of morals that you deem best for them. Your children may or may not make those morals their own when they start thinking about issues for themselves, but it is your job to provide them with a sound base from which to grow.
• Physical boundaries.
Whether or not you feel masturbation is an acceptable activity for your preteen, it is your job to help your child set limits on other people’s behaviors that may feel, or may be, threatening. All children should know that all physical touch—including any type of sexual touch—is personal.
They should understand their right to refuse any infringement of that personal boundary by anyone—adult, child, stranger or friend. They should know how to look someone squarely in the eye and say “no.” And they should know that unwanted physical touch of any kind is illegal and should be reported to a responsible adult.
• Less common behavior.
If someone has approached your child with the idea of masturbating together as a social event—which can happen—be clear with your child that this is a very personal activity and should never be a requirement of friendship or “being cool.” It is important to stress to your child that they need to be able to say “no,” strongly and firmly.
• Emotional effects.
Because of its intimate nature, there are also emotional ramifications of physical touch. Some families raise their children with much hugging, kissing and caressing as the norm. Others do none of this, and aren’t comfortable with it. The norm in your family will affect your child’s reaction to being touched by someone else, or even exploring themselves. If a child feels emotionally threatened, no matter what the behavior, he needs to be aware of his right to say “no.”
Likewise, with self-touch, a child may need help dealing with his feelings if his actions go against his family’s moral values. If you’ve told your child that masturbation is a sin, but he unconsciously—or consciously—touches himself, he will be feeling guilty. Help him to deal with this in whatever way works with your belief system. A child who has been touched by someone else—even with the child’s permission—also can feel guilty, and will need to come to terms with this.
• Talking about it.
For many parents, this topic is more difficult to broach than the basic “birds and bees” discussion. But it is still important to keep the lines of communication open.
While it may not be dinner table conversation, there are usually times when you are alone with your young teen and can bring it up. Use this column as an excuse if you have to. For example, start a conversation by saying, “Can you believe this woman wrote an article about kids masturbating?” It opens the subject in a neutral and lighthearted way, and you can move on from there.
Your child may go ashen at your question, but don’t be afraid to forge ahead with, “You know we’ve never talked about that before, but I just want you to know ... “ Depending on how comfortable you and your teen are, the conversation may be in-depth, or it may be just a quick recap of your main points. (Make sure you know your main points before you start, include information about saying “no” and your moral beliefs.)
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 21 and 25. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.